The Key to Spontaneity is Practice

Paradoxical, but true: Great improvisation requires extensive practice and expertise. My own studies of jazz and improv theater groups shows this to be true, as I describe in my 2007 book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. Most people find this to be surprising, because our mythical image of the great improviser is someone who is driven by internal impulse, genius-level performance creativity. Stereotypes like saxophonist Charlie Parker, high on heroin, blowing his horn at 2am in some New York jazz club.

It’s the same with every performance genre. This recent article in the New York Times tells the story of how spontaneity in a classical music performance emerged only after eleven days of 14-hour rehearsals. Of course, you can go too far: every theater professional is familiar with “overrehearsal” that drains the spontaneous spirit from a performance. But without rehearsal, familiarity, and expertise, you’ll never get effective spontaneity.

This reminds me of a famous quotation from comedian George Burns:

The most important thing in an actor is sincerity. If he can fake that, he’s got it made.

2 thoughts on “The Key to Spontaneity is Practice

  1. I would have thought the last thing a conductor wanted from an orchestra member was spontaneity so the basis of this piece seems to be a bit ‘forced’. There’s always going to be a difference in individual performance but composers (arguably the creative people involved in so-called classical music) demand absolute adherence to the ‘plan’ the score. I’m thinking here of pieces like steve reich’s 6 pianos or drumming. I believe Stockhausen (Kreuzspiel??), in an attempt to nail performances down to what he expected, indicated to the oboe player where they were to take a breath. Ok spontaneity in a rock or jazz performance is to be expected, but not always welcome I suspect. However, I agree that practice, or maybe it’s just action or acting, is more likely to lead to something unexpected happening, whether this is good or bad, useful or not, welcome or not. I think this is the essence of your creativity as an emergent phenomena is it not?

    1. Yes, absolutely, that’s why I blogged this story. If you read the New York Times article I linked to, the two examples are both of European classical, scored music:

      The most exciting spontaneity often comes from mature artists with decades of experience. I will never forget hearing the great pianist Rudolf Serkin on the exact 200th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 1970 play a Beethoven program at Carnegie Hall, ending with a stupendous account of the composer’s most audacious and difficult sonata, the “Hammerklavier.” Here was monumental spontaneity born of utter mastery.

      And this:

      This elusive issue of spontaneity has been raised for me by a new Sony Classical recording of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.” …Striving for precision, rather than resulting in pedantry, unleashes “freedom and improvisation,” [Mr. Currentzis] adds.

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